What will the kids remember? The big moments in the stadium, with thousands of people screaming their father's name? The little moments in between, like the time Dad bit that piece of candy in half so Jaden wouldn't choke on it, or the mornings Jaz brought him his coffee? Or maybe they'll remember that little playhouse with the slide next to it, just outside the players' lounge at Arthur Ashe Stadium. They all spent a lot of time there during those two weeks that seemed to last forever. Just after 4 p.m. on Sunday, Andre Agassi was standing next to the house's tiny window when his three-year-old son told him the kind of thing parents laugh about for years. "Kick butt, Daddy," Jaden said.
Agassi pulled his 23-month-old daughter close then and, just before leaving for perhaps the most remarkable match in one of sport's most remarkable careers, looked up at his wife. Steffi Graf, who knows something about winning Grand Slam finals, put on a sober look and clapped her hands. "Go get him," she said.
Agassi did as he was told. He turned and hustled into the building, passing his brother Philip, who had been in Flushing Meadow 20 years ago for Andre's first loss at the U.S. Open. The two locked eyes and bumped fists, but Andre kept going. "He's just going to come out swinging," Philip said.
What will the kids remember? Maybe that the old man almost pulled it off. Midway through the men's final of the 2005 U.S. Open--with the match split at one set apiece and the 35-year-old Agassi having just broken the serve of the world's No. 1 player, Roger Federer, to go up 4-2 in the third--disturbing thoughts began flying through Federer's usually imperturbable mind. Maybe this is a fairy-tale tournament. He's going to come back from a set down to win? Is this a joke or what?
The confusion was understandable. For the first time in months the same Federer who had won his last 22 finals looked as if he could lose. The packed house at Ashe, 22,859 strong and overwhelmingly pro-Agassi, began to believe. Though fearing a flare-up in his inflamed sciatic nerve, though coming off his third five-set match of the tournament, though the oldest man in a U.S. Open final in 31 years, Agassi suddenly had the upset of the decade in his hands.
But then Federer did what great players do. He stayed calm and worked to find his game. Then Agassi did what old men do, what 39-year-old Jimmy Connors did in the Open semifinals in 1991: He began to act his age. He found that all the yearning, all the hard work that had carried him this far wouldn't be enough. The afternoon sun had faded away, the harsh stadium lights gleamed off his bald head. A shanked Federer backhand dropped on the baseline, Agassi sent a forehand wide, two more winners from Federer fell in, and the defending champion broke back. Agassi began to groan as he swung, and by the time the third-set tiebreaker ended at 7-1, he was finished. The 24-year-old Federer won his sixth Grand Slam title 6-3, 2-6, 7-6, 6-1, the last set a showcase of unparalleled talent in its prime. For the first time since Don Budge did it in 1937-38, a man had won both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open two years running. Agassi has played Connors, John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl, Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg and, of course, Pete Sampras. But battling Federer in a Grand Slam final for the first time, Agassi faced a kind of tennis with which he wasn't familiar: airtight strokes and an ability not only to generate spectacular shots but also to switch instantly from defense to offense.
"He's the best I've ever played against," Agassi said of Federer. "There's nowhere to go. Other guys you play, there's a safety zone, there's a place to get to, there's a way, you know? He plays the game in a very special way. I haven't seen it before."
Of course, no one had seen anything like Agassi before he broke onto the scene in 1986. Taking the ball impossibly early and wearing outrageous clothes, he embarked on a career marked by strange absences and confounding comebacks, odd eloquence and startling crassness, and he won three of his eight Grand Slam titles-- Wimbledon in '92, the U.S. Open in '94 and the French Open in '99--when no one expected it. So despite Federer's excellence, despite the stirring breakthrough of Kim Clijsters to win her first major, this U.S. Open belonged to Agassi. He had hobbled out of the French Open in May, his back flaring, a first-round loser. He had skipped Wimbledon and briefly considered retiring. "I told him to take a few days off, maybe a week or a week and a half, and then we could talk about it," says his longtime trainer, Gil Reyes. "He called the next day and said, 'I ain't finished. Let's get this right. Let's fix it.'"
The numbing salvation of two more cortisone shots and the benefits of Reyes's exercise regimen kept Agassi pain-free the rest of the summer and set up perhaps his most riveting tournament run yet. Rolling past the huge-serving, 6'10" Ivo Karlovic in the second round, then dangerous talents Tomas Berdych and Xavier Malisse and resurgent Americans James Blake and Robby Ginepri, Agassi fired the crowd's emotions like no one since Jimbo went on his astonishing roll. "If I was in the stands," Blake said after his five-set loss to Agassi on Sept. 7, "I'd cheer for him too." When Agassi tried talking to the crowd after Sunday's final, the last of a weeklong series of shouts from the seats interrupted, "We love you!"
Agassi answered, "I love you, too," neatly summing up the fortnight's unusual tone. Perhaps it was the disturbing images beamed up from New Orleans, but rich-and-spoiled tennis carried itself with a rare gravitas in New York City; when Agassi teared up at a press conference on Sept. 1 and said, "I'll be a part of anything that might make a difference," the tournament assumed a seriousness that it never quite lost. The USTA pledged $500,000 to the Red Cross; players filmed public-service announcements and donated equipment for an online charity auction; Clijsters announced that she was donating $25,000. Contribution buckets and stands were set up on the grounds of the National Tennis Center, and by Sunday fans had chipped in $65,000.